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[653] Foreign Bodies – Cynthia Ozick

1foreign

” Marvin’s children too lived away. They could not live with their father—he had driven them off. The girl was inflamed. She had inserted herself into the unstable lives of her brother and his wife, a couple entangled nightly in sex. He’s a man—so had Lili, old in the ways of bodily congress, spoken of the boy she had aroused; and there lay the girl in a nearby room, listening, inflamed, . . . ” (Ch.36, p.163)

Foreign Bodies is Ozick’s homage to Henry James, a mirror to James’s The Ambassadors, with slanted replications of the latter’s storyline in reverse. In James’s novel, a middle-aged widower is dispatched to Paris on a delicate social mission by his friend and literary patron, the wealthy Mrs. Newsome, to retrieve her son, Chad, from the seductions of France and return him to the family business in America. But the task is futile once he realizes how remarkably imrpoved Chad has become in the clutches of an older woman, Madame de Vionnet.

She was all contradiction—resentment and indifference—and then this . . . this harebrained plummeting into Paris. To do what? To rescue whom? Marvin from his torment, the brother who abused her? Bea from a low and ragged life? (Ch.10, p.48)

Ozick’s ambassador from New York to Paris, where “young Americans in their 20s and 30s who called themselves ‘expatriates’, though they were little more than literary tourists on long visit,” (Ch.1, p.2), is a divorced high school teacher named Bea Nightingale. In summer 1952, Bea is charged by her abrasive brother, marvin, with going to Paris to reclaim his son, Julian, whose junior year abroad has now lasted three.

What Bea finds in Paris is a “homeless and jobless and reckless and rash” (Ch.17, p.81) boy who cannot keep up with the literary crowd of “imitation baby Sartres and Gides.” A loser in short. But the chief, more shocking fact of her nephew’s life that Bea has to confront is his sudden marriage to an older woman, a Romanian refugee, Lili, daughter of an educated Bucharest family, whose first husband and young son were murdered in the war and whose own arm is scarred from a bullet wound. Bea’s involvement is out of duty and obligation—she had no interest in their lives. But it sends her backward to confront her own past.

Ozick’s prose is incisive, observant and sharp-edged. The story mostly flows nimbly except for an occasional hiccup in which Ozick indulges in stumbling with excessive historical details. The tensions that motivate this novel are brought to alleviations as Bea comes to touch everyone’s life. Ozick examines the pull of family and obligation—the things we do for loved ones even when we don’t know why. But I have mixed feelings for this book, which could have been more substantial if the focus is on Lili, who is frustratingly peripheral. The beautiful, puny language is the strength, but sometimes it’s overwrought.

255 pp. Atlantic Books UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. An intriguing review – do I need to read The Ambassadors before I read Foreign Bodies?

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